The Politics of Names and Naming in India

Dr Jacob Copeman


This research project analyzes the hitherto under-explored significance of naming practices in respect of caste and religion in India, with a particular focus on the names given to persons. Though frequently stigmatizing, caste names can be treated inventively: hidden, changed, or subject to revaluation. The project aims to explore historical strategies of naming and renaming whilst also bringing the study squarely into the present: what can naming strategies tell us about Indian society in a time of expedited social change?

Combining the methodological strengths of social anthropology and linguistics, this project seeks to synthesize and reinterpret existing insubstantial approaches to the naming of persons in India whilst also developing original and innovative case-studies focusing on low-caste strategies of name-changing for the purpose of obscuring caste-identities, Sikh reformist attempts to reinvigorate the religion’s anti-caste sentiments through novel naming policies, and secularist, anti-caste activists’ provision of ‘secular names’ such as the given name ‘Sanketh’ (Information) and surname ‘No-caste’. The primary output will be a book entitled The politics of names and naming in India. The book’s main ethnographic chapters will deploy local-level data to address wider academic and policy debates. An initial integrative historical phase of library-based research will be followed by 5 months of intensive qualitative field research for collection of oral data, to be indexed in Atlas.Ti and analysed via an original synthesis of linguistic and anthropological theory. Such a disciplinary combination falls between the remits of the major UK funding bodies. The aim is to refocus attention on the agency of real people in lived contexts in order to highlight the role of linguistic innovations in the creation of a new fluidity and flux in the domain of caste. By examining the nature and extent of such practices in a variety of different settings and bringing them to the attention of a wider audience including agencies with the power to effect change, it has the potential to bring forward the possibility of a more progressive and socially mobile Indian future.

ISRF Jacob Copeman

Jacob Copeman a social anthropologist working in the areas of medical, linguistic and religious anthropology, and South Asian studies more broadly. Most of his ethnographic research has been conducted in north India, focussing on biological exchange and blood economies, atheism and non-religion, the politics of personal names and naming practices, and varieties of spiritual leadership. His PhD investigated the many facets of blood donation in India, enabling him to link classic discussions of gift theory to newer debates in the anthropology of the body. From his work on blood, he developed an interest not only in contemporary gurus, but in their apparent antithesis, non-religious activists, and this interest has led him to participate in the recent emergence of the growing field of the anthropology of secular non-religion.

His most recent monograph Hematologies: The Political Life of Blood in India (Cornell U. P. 2019), co-authored with Dwaipayan Banerjee, explores the relation between blood’s utopian flows and political clottings as it moves through time and Book coverspace, conjuring new kinds of social collectivities while re-animating older forms — it seeks, through a focus on substantial-political flows, to develop a new approach to Indian political life. His first monograph — Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India– was published in 2009 (Rutgers U. P. / Routledge India). Drawing on extensive ethnographic research, the book combined medical and religious anthropology to index how new forms of devotional worship enable and produce the contexts of mass biological transfers.


  • Das, V., & Copeman, J. (2015) Introduction. On names in South Asia: Iteration,(im) propriety and dissimulation. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, (12).
  • Copeman, J. (2014) Surprise, As Usual, in Joyce, F. (ed.) ISRF Bulletin Issue III: On Assignment, 14-22